‘Red Rock’ returns: So who killed Brian McGonigle?
As TV3’s hit soap returns to reveal who killed its principal baddy, its creators talk about the show, its future and keeping their audience engrossed
Fans of TV3’s Red Rock have been waiting all summer to find out who killed Brian McGonigle, played by Sean Mahon.
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So, who killed Brian?
Red Rock’s principal baddie, played malevolently by Sean Mahon, was dispatched to soap hell at the end of the last season and fans have had to wait all summer to find out who done it.
In the building at the old John Player factory grounds in Dublin, that serves as the police station on Red Rock, I search for clues.
Upstairs, in the on-site writing room, there are white boards on the wall with storyline synopses scribbled in black, red and blue marker, but it’s hard to read the handwriting.
“I didn’t realise all that was still up there,” says Red Rock showrunner Kim Revill.
At one end of the room there is a wall of photographic headshots of all of the main actors.
I check to see if there is an arrow pointed at one headshot with the words “Killer of Brian” attached. There is not.
Outside, on the lot, there are samurais marching around with swords, but they’re involved with another production and have nothing to do with Brian’s murder, or so Revill assures me.
Revill is currently working on stories for April 2017.
“Your head has to be in four time zones simultaneously when you’re working on something like this,” she says.
The writing process can get heated.
“Earlier, we were having an argument over a new character,” says John Yorke, whose company Angel Station co-produces Red Rock with Element Pictures.
What was the nature of the argument?
“We were arguing over whether he was posh or not,” explains Yorke.
When Red Rock began a year and a half ago it was a long shot for TV3 and the 160-episode commitment looked ambitious (they have now shown 122 episodes and TV3 has extended their commitment).
And the channel’s primary motivation was the loss of Coronation Street and Emmerdale to its then rival UTV Ireland.
“A few eyebrows were raised,” says Yorke, a former executive producer on EastEnders.
“It was, like, ‘really? seriously? honestly?’ ” he says, before he realised: “Once in a generation an opportunity comes along where you can get involved in the beginnings of a soap opera.”
He spoke to Yorke – “who is a guru when it comes to this stuff” – and then Yorke rang Peter McKenna, who became the initial showrunner.
“When I rang Peter there was a long sigh,” says Yorke, “and he said ‘I don’t want to do it’. Then he said ‘I’ll do a year’. ”
He laughs. “Nobody says ‘no’ to the opportunity to create a new soap.”
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McKenna came up with the initial idea “of a fictional harbour town with two warring families and a sheriff in the middle of it – a western, basically”.
The initial team went down to McKenna’s house in Kilkenny for three days “and wrote four stories that acted as the axis for the first year”.
A lot of their time, says Yorke, was spent imagining what a soap opera would look like if the form was developed now in an era of Netflix and catch-up TV.
“It’s a very old form. If you were inventing TV now you probably wouldn’t come up with the idea of a soap opera.”
They resolved to use a lot of the techniques of low-budget filmmaking, says Guiney, like location shooting and hand-held cameras.
“One of Peter’s inspirations was a show called Friday Night Lights,” he says and laughs. “Though we don’t have any of the resources of Friday Night Lights.” (Yorke tells me that an episode of Red Rock costs less than half that of an episode of EastEnders).
Was it fun?
“It was a total nightmare at the beginning,” says Guiney. “It’s an enormous amount of output. I’ve never done anything like it. I was making [the Lenny Abrahamson film] Room at the same time – where we shot for 50 days and edited for six months.
“One episode of Red Rock is shot in two days and edited in two days. And it has to work like clockwork. If the scripts are late that throws everything into complete chaos.
“Certainly for the first four or five months of production everything was miserable. We were late with scripts, people were doing crazy hours. We were reshooting stuff because it wasn’t good enough. You never reshoot on a soap.”
What did success look like to them at that point?
“Well, TV3 ambition was, ‘Oh no, we’ve lost Coronation Street and Emmerdale, what are we going to do?’” laughs Yorke.
Peter McKenna said, according to Yorke: “Success will be if they don’t cancel it within three months. And I fully expect them to cancel it.”
Yorke laughs and adds: “Peter is a bit like Eeyore.”
Guiney says: “Success ultimately is that you set something up for the long term and we don’t know if we’ve done that yet.”
The rest of them, says Yorke, wanted to “build a big audience and hold it and grow it. We wanted to be noticed”.
Revill has worked on EastEnders, Holby City, Casualty and Doctors, and thinks the important thing for a programme like Red Rock is that they make a connection with the audience.
“I think soaps are the friend in the room, the nation speaking to itself,” she says. “The pejorative stuff that people say about soaps, I think it has a lot to do with class. Soaps are what ordinary people watch but I think it’s very important because of that.
“Films are all well and good but soaps are in people’s house… It’s something that lives with you as a viewer. People talk about it on the bus.”
“It’s what Dickens was doing, isn’t it?” says Yorke, who has just completed work on a BBC adaption of Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone.
“Serial events that happen at regular intervals that make you want to know more until you’re engrossed in a long-running story.”
In the first year and a half, the show developed a lot, says Yorke.
Certain elements drifted away (there was initially a standalone crime storyline each week that they have since discontinued) and others became more fore-grounded.
“It started with a very simple premise,” says Yorke. “Two warring families and a sheriff and, after a year of that, you sort of go ‘okay, we’ve sort of done the feud now, where are the next areas of conflict?’ ”
The police setting, says Yorke, turned out to be a great “story engine”.
He and Revill have both worked on UK soaps such as EastEnders where “you’re constantly trying to find terrible things to do to Kat Slater or [wondering] how many times Ian Beale can get married.”
They’ve found a sweet spot in storylines about well-meaning but morally conflicted (or, in the case of Brian, straightforwardly immoral) gardaí.
They have a Garda advisor, says Yorke, who gives them ideas but is constantly “shaking his head and saying ‘I never said you could do that’. ”
Two major signs that the show might have some longevity came with the news that first Amazon Prime and then the BBC were taking up the show.
The latter network aired two episodes at a time (garnering 1.2 million viewers for the first instalment) in a move that now seems very prescient.
A year ago, there was talk of Red Rock eventually moving to three or four half-hour programmes spread across the week.
The show is now to air for one whole hour once a week, which might have something to do with another change: now that Coronation Street and Emmerdale are probably returning to TV3 (both it and UTV Ireland were bought by Virgin Media), it will no longer be the main soap on the station.
Will Red Rock become less like a soap opera and more like a traditional drama?
“I think it will,” says Guiney. “The reason it was originally commissioned has changed. It’s evolving… It’s still very low-cost drama in comparison to what it’s up against but it’s becoming something else.
“We’re in the middle of that evolution right now so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.”
Revill and Yorke are very protective of the word “soap”, though they reference everything from Happy Valley to Transparent and note how much of Britain’s best drama is produced by people – such as Sally Wainwright and Paul Abbott – who came up through the soap form.
They say that the later, longer time slot allows for deeper, darker storytelling but that there won’t be any jarring changes in tone.
Red Rock now averages around 200,000 viewers in Ireland and there are plenty of what Revill calls “Red Rock super fans”.
She keeps up with them on social media.
“I know a lot of writers don’t read that stuff,” she says, “but I’m really interested in what they like and why they like it.”
Do the fans get angry?
“Oh God, yes,” says Revill. “They get riled up about it because it belongs to them.”
“They got a bit angry with the last cliffhanger,” says Yorke. “Who did it? Who killed him? Cut. Now wait three months.”
Even the show’s creator Peter McKenna was put out, says Yorke.
“He rang me and said ‘You can’t do that.’ ”
“I think he just wanted to know who did it.”
Red Rock returns to TV3 on Monday at 9.30pm